27 October 2010

The multiplication of God’s abundant love

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector ... a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Banbury

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Wednesday 27 October 2010:

5 p.m., Community Eucharist

Readings for the Fifth Sunday before Advent (Joel 2: 23-32; Psalm 65; II Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14).

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There are so many parables and stories in Saint Luke’s Gospel that it often becomes difficult to find original thoughts and ideas, new perspectives on them when it comes to preaching on them on a regular weekly basis.

This is particularly true when it comes to the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-37), the Good Shepherd (Luke 15: 3-7), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), and, of course, the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, or the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14).

It is even more difficult when you are standing before members of your own tutorial group, who have already torn this story apart in a Bible study only a week or two ago.

And so there were a number of easy options this evening.

1, I could have gone instead to our Old Testament reading, and talked about how in your ministry and mission you will need constantly to “dream dreams” and “see visions” and to encourage others to do so too (Joel 2: 28).

2, I could have gone to the Epistle reading, and urged us all on in our ministry and mission, to continue fighting the good fight, never to give up until we had finished the race, to keep the faith and to look forward to the crown of righteousness (II Timothy 7-8).

3, I could have been very forthright about tax collectors and the sneering attitude of those who are supposed to provide leadership in our society.

4, We have all been taught to make connections with society around us and what’s happening in people’s lives. So it might have been inappropriate here to stoop to jokes about how people in Ireland can tell the difference between publicans and tax collectors … how publicans, who were once liberal about cashing cheques, are being squeezed out of business; while tax collectors are squeezing everyone out of business because of those who were too liberal writing themselves cheques with our money.

5,There was a fifth option – to go to the readings for Bible Sunday, which were an alternative for Sunday last. But I know no-one here needs to be reminded of the centrality and importance of the Bible in the life of the Church.

And so I returned to this Gospel story, which may have been rehashed for you in many ways last Sunday, but still has so many strong images and so many built-in stories to explore.

We are constantly talking here about the need to make connections, to integrate each strand of our learning, and also to make connections with what goes before and what comes after. And there is an important connection to be made – most appropriately half-way through the week – between last Sunday’s Gospel reading and next Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Our reading this evening is sent within the context of Christ about to make his journey up to Jerusalem for the climax of Saint Luke’s Gospel, which is the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. He has already eaten with a Pharisee (Luke 14), the tax collectors and the sinners have been attracted to hear what he has to say (Luke 15), and now Christ is about to take the Twelve with him and is going up to Jerusalem (Luke 18: 31).

But before he calls the disciples aside and tells them where they are going, Christ tells this story of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector go up to the Temple to pray. That movement alone indicates they are probably not normal residents of Jerusalem. In a way, they are going up there before Christ. But they are provincial figures: the Pharisee may be a local religious leader, a rabbi in a provincial synagogue; the tax collector may be the richest man in his town, given the predilection of tax collectors at the time to make a nifty commission by squeezing as much as they can out of reluctant tax payers.

So they are the two leading figures among the sort of people who hear Jesus telling this story … one the local religious leader, the other the local get-rich-quick man.

Neither would have been expected to pray in the Temple on a regular basis. They might have gone there occasionally, but only occasionally, on High Holy Days, like Passover and Pentecost. But we know this is not a High Holy Day because they are there on their own, praying as two lonely figures, within earshot of each other.

Neither would have felt welcome in the Temple in those days. The Temple priests were, by-and-large, Sadducees with little time for Pharisees. And, anyway, the regular place of prayer for a Pharisee, week-by-week, was at home on Sabbath eve, or in the Synagogue. As for the tax collector, no-one would have expected him to go to the Temple, on High Holy Days or any other days.

Jesus has already dined with Pharisees. So, stretch your imagination, and imagine that the Pharisee is that same Simon who begrudges Christ’s anointing by a woman, an anointing that prefigures the women coming to anoint him in the tomb. And the Tax Collector is the same tax collector Jesus wants to dine with in next Sunday’s reading, Zacchaeus of Jericho. What a turning of the tables that would be!

The Pharisee, praying in the Temple, presents himself before God as upright and righteous. The Tax Collector, on the other hand, lays himself bare before God.

The Tax Collector reminds me of the small boy is always afraid that his father is only going to see his faults and is worried that every time he sees his father he is going to upbraided or reprimanded.

The Pharisee reminds me of the small boy who is always striving for stars on his copy books, prizes for his essays, medals for sports, not for himself but for approval from his father, but knows in his heart that when he comes him he will be ignored, that he will not get the attention he craves and desires.

How many people do we know who find it difficult to talk to about God’s love being like a father’s love for his children, either because their experiences of their fathers was difficult or as children they felt unacknowledged or unloved?

Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector might have learned that God’s love is not earned by what we do or denied to us because of what we fail to do. God’s love is not dependent on our actions; it’s not a tap we can turn on or turn off.

There is a popular myth that the love of God is in scarce supply. The truth is there is no scarcity. God’s love flows in over-abundance. And we celebrate and rejoice in the over-flowing abundance of God’s love particularly when we celebrate the Eucharist.

Although this parable is normally heard as a story about prayer, it is also a story about how we love and how we love others.

On the surface of it, the Pharisee is a deeply religious man. But he prays for no-one – not for God, not himself, not for others. Where is his love?

Those who first heard this story would not expect the Tax Collector to be a religious figure. Yet, he at least prays for himself. His cry is the cry of the blind man at the gate of Jericho, the cry of the Penitent Thief on the Cross, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the Sinner.”

And if I crave God’s mercy and love for myself, rather than presenting myself to God as smug and satisfied, then I may, I just may, begin to understand the needs of others too.

If I am aware of my own need for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s light, then I might just understand, be sympathetic to, minister to the needs of others for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s light.

The tax collector in next Sunday’s Gospel reading feels the strength and the warmth and the embrace of that love. It is so empowering that he is willing to take up the cross, figuratively represented by the tree that Zacchaeus climbs.

He experiences the mercy of God so generously that he pours out mercy in such multiplied abundance that it is four times as generous as it ought to be.

He is bathed in Christ’s light so much so that he is more than eager to dine with him.

Both Pharisees and Tax Collectors are welcome at this Eucharist ... for, if the truth were known, we are all like the tax collector and we are all like the Pharisee, in our own different ways.

• God loves us as a true Father loves, not because of anything we do to please him, or any demands for his attention.

• God loves us as a true Son loves, eager to have that love returned.

• God loves us as Holy Spirit, delighting in the ways we find to share that Divine love with others, with humanity.

When we dine with Christ this evening in the Eucharist, let us not come before him thinking we have earned his mercy or love or approval ... they’re there for the taking.

Let’s not think that we have to prove ourselves as worthy ... God’s worthiness is good enough for me.

Let’s be so eager to dine with him at his table, that we want to share this in multiplied abundance, that we want to invite others – that we want to invite the whole of humanity – to the Heavenly Banquet.

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the Institute Chapel on Wednesday 27 October 2010.

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